Event designers customarily bring swatches, floral portfolios and past-event photos to initial meetings, but Dubai-based designlab events owner Hibah Albakree and business partner Mootassem Elbaba bring a certified architect. As a bride unveils her vision, Albakree formulates the celebration’s never-before-seen identity, Elbaba taps 30 years in theatrical and cinematic set design to actualize her artistry, and architect Marwan Maalouf renders 3-D computer models.
By the time 60 to 100 builders and stylists spend six days assembling an unfathomable number of meticulously labeled components, the event manual is so massive, “If you could see [it], you’d be scared,” Albakree attests. “We build our projects as if we are building homes.”
As a girl, “I always wanted to build things with my hands that made an impression on people,” Albakree recalls. But when she volunteered to design her sister’s 2006 wedding, “I didn’t ever think about being in this business; I just wanted to do something nice,” she says. Afterward, an awed guest entrusted her with a wedding for 700: “It was a big decision for the bride to give me such a high-end event,” she says.
With three projects completed, she journeyed to New York to ask Preston Bailey for an internship. Instead, he counseled: “You should never look at anything I have ever done or will do. Your style is so architectural. If you fall into the trap of copying me, you will lose your identity.” So, Albakree listened. “He set me free,” she says.
What is her chief desire you ask? To create impact so event-goers will “feel like they’ve seen an artistic element in their world.” Middle East weddings “are like a fashion show,” she explains. The catwalk and bride’s stage are focal points.
For a Dubai wedding for 1,000, designlab collaborated with a Los Angeles lighting firm to create visual illusions with swirling, ceiling suspended tubes. Peonies—10,000 in total— were “the only flower you saw the whole night.” The stylish setting was “ahead of its time,” says Albakree. From every vantage point, “the wedding looked different.”
The Saudi-born designer, educated in studio arts at Massachusetts’ liberal, feminist Smith College, melds Middle Eastern sensibilities with a Western flair for astoundment. She’s as sought-after for her sensitivity and values as for her energy and imagination. “When you work with me, you feel safe,” Albakree says.
As designlab’s visibility as “a company that builds art and design” expands, she is proud they’ve adhered to extraordinary standards. “My dream is the day I start working outside the region. I want the Western world to understand that in the Middle Eastern world, we are very talented and very capable.”